The Journey Continues
The Realm of the Spirit in AA
The other day, someone at an AA meeting asked me what part I played in my relationship to the concept of God. Several years ago, I came out at as a non-theist, even after thirty-one years in the program.
I became defensive because I believed he was making every attempt, in a non-threatening way, to gently admonish me for my “profound problems with the theology of the ‘Our Father,'” the statement I made at the 12 step table that night. It was clear to me that, in his view, I had not really “surrendered” my own non-theism, even though I have been consistently open about being nurtured, in and out of the rooms, by other people’s faiths, while, at the same time, saying that those sky-god faiths don’t represent my own spiritual journey in the program. Nor do those faiths embody my notion of “The Realm of the Spirit” that I find in Steps two and three.
I would have agreed with him if I believed all sky-god followers to be fools. I do not. However, my experience with human nature tells me that, in any group, there will be some who are really, really naive. And yet, I know many theists who are intelligent, compassionate, and self-reflective. They strive to be good and be of service. They bend the rules when life kicks them in the ass. They often love diversity because they have big, inclusive hearts.
The Interventionist God: Grace and Tests
I remember very vividly having a strong belief in a sky god when I was growing up. I literally believed my Catholic God was a person. What I did not realize is that I was having a “relationship” with that God in the same way I was having relationships with others in my life. It wasn’t until, as St Paul might have said, I dismantled my childhood narrative about a superior divinity actively intervening in my life.
I was taught the belief that divine intervention could either be positive or negative. I could be given “grace” (a divine gift of moral strength or a prize of some kind–a lover, a car, a new job, a promotion). Or I could be given a “test” (sickness, an unhappy marriage, a troubled child, unemployment). It would be some negative event that would challenge me so that I could rise from the ashes of that pain to new heights of moral and psychological strength.
All of this, I was told and taught, came from a wise, sometimes cruel, but ultimately caring, benevolent divinity (in the Christian tradition, you had your pick–God, the father; God, the son; God, the Holy Ghost).
The God Belief as Relational
It wasn’t until well into my golden years that I began to have the courage to admit that the entire Judeo-Christian God-story was nothing but that–a myth, a fable, a narrative that humans manufactured. Over time, I also began to realize that the sky-god narrative was really a relationship story in and of itself: That the “I” of me, collectively or individually, was having a relationship with the “Other,” a sky-god persona created in a story. That “Other” dominated my childhood and adolescence.
The “I”of that relationship had many, many dimensions, something I, initially, didn’t want to admit because it would have interfered with the “perfect” sky-god story I was taught I had to believe was literally, relentlessly, and infallibly true.
The collective “I” becomes even more complex. In any one community, there are all kinds of reasons individuals want, create, and believe in an exterior divinity.
Reasons For Belief: Fear, Need for Good, Ego, Human Projection
One potent reason, something many will never admit, is the natural human fear that there may really be no life after death. God believers will often become angry or feel insulted if they are told they believe only out of fear. And yet, the notion of eternal death, the total and endless termination of consciousness can be a very frightening reality. After all, unless we are chronically stuck or depressed, when we are really alive, everything seems so possible–a changing season, a first child, a new home, retirement. The reality of that morphing into a vast eternal emptiness has to elicit a kind of existential panic (most of us, I believe, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Or we choose to engage ourselves in life the best way we know how, even with distractions).
Many Christian theists I know do really believe in a world of good (evil, I am finding out is not often talked about in “polite” Christian circles. And many evangelicals see their daily temptations more as nuisances than as a result of epic, demon-driven flaws). So, it comes as no surprise to me, then, that God, for many theists, is the ultimate form of the perfect “Good,” something never quite attainable but always to be pursued.
In this sense, the Christian God is perceived as the end journey of human restlessness, a path of constant discontent softened by the need to “touch the hem” of perfection in returning to that ideal in weekly church rituals of sermons, prayers, confessions.
On a more personal level, there was a time when my belief in a sky god came from my fantasy that “John will live on.” This, to my mind, wonderfully witty, intelligent, sometimes cynical, often compassionate nice-to-be-around guy, will, ya know, just always be there to liven up a party.
When I get into that ego-driven mode of thinking, I am capable of saying, “maybe not.” Then I work up to the next psychological hurdle, “probably not.” And finally, the coup de grace, “definitely not.”
On another level, a belief in a rule-driven sky-god divinity can be nothing more that a human projection of how some believe all morality should be defined and practiced. And when a group of theological literalists and fundamentalists control the conversation, you end up having theological fascism. One set of strict rules. One infallible interpretation of all sacred texts. One monolithic perception of how the world should function.
Undermining Death, Grandiose Promises, Good People
In the end, we have lots of ways to undermine death, as Chögyam Trungpa says in Spiritual Materialism. Sky-god beliefs, much like a belief in karma, can give us a false sense of security in fantasizing that we’ll all be protected from finality. I mean “real” and inexorable finality. But, in the words of Chögyam Trungpa, there is “no victory over death.” Even reincarnation followers play the ‘it’s-not-over-yet” game, believing that they’ll be given one more chance to work out their mortality or to wiggle out of their finality.
Institutionalized theocentric religions often make grandiose promises–eternal rewards, a cure for cancer, epiphanies through a conversion-like experience. The gospel-of-prosperity sect even promises an economically prosperous life through request prayers or an arbitrary gift of grace from an exterior divinity, often by way of an intermediary (a cleric, s Christian motivational speaker, a televangelist).
On the other side of the spiritual ledger. there are many Christians who really do walk their faiths. They have ethical, self-aware lives. They recognize their own flaws; they tread lightly in making judgments; they feel compassion and empathy for the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the abused.
And finally, to avoid being smug about my non-theism, I fully realize that there are some rabid atheists steeped in cynicism and rage. And there are those obsessed about the empirical and the observable. They often reject transformational, sometimes transcendental experiences resulting from relationships, interconnections, aesthetic moments (‘aha” moments) as primitive excursions into medievalism.
However, even scientists tell us, on the sub-atomic level, we can affect what we see, in the same way that we change our tune talking to a hostile listener. Which brings me to another conclusion: sub-atomic particles aren’t stupid.